Friday, October 7, 2016

Grammar is just a game

I've been wrongly called a pedant when nothing can be further from the truth. Those who know me well know that I don't care in the least about grammar. When I blasted Singapore's Speak Good English Movement in about eighty posts or so on this blog, I did so only because the Movement has repeatedly shown itself to be totally ignorant of basic English grammar and yet it insists on telling others they are grammatically wrong when they are not. It is this blatant idiocy of the Movement that I had to address in those posts.

But I do not generally go about telling others they are wrong grammatically however much they may have flouted the rules of grammar. That's because I don't give a toss about grammar. Grammar is nothing more than a game with a set of rules that get altered every few years. It's a game in which the goal posts are repeatedly moved about according to the taste and fashion of usage.

Let's look at a simple example. For decades, many school children were told off for using some conjunctions as conjuncts. I can speak about this with some passion because I was rebuked as a schoolboy by my English teacher for doing precisely that. But I didn't just take it lying down. I cited Sir Ernest Gowers in my defence but to no avail. My teacher was a stern and inflexible woman with a beehive hairdo and as you probably know, a teacher with a beehive hairdo usually doesn't budge an inch once she's decided on something. So I was obliged for as long as she was marking my exam scripts to comply with her 'superstition' which is what Gowers calls such a non-existent grammar rule.

But as I grow older, I can see why some teachers are uncompromising even though they are grossly at variance with the pronouncements of countless grammarians in the 20th and 21st centuries. When a word strays into a different category, it usually retains many of its original attributes so that you can't really re-categorise it. To use our earlier example, conjunctions that are used correctly as conjuncts retain some of their properties as coordinates and sorely lack many of the attributes that you expect to see in a conjunct. So, grammarians will say that some conjunctions may function as conjuncts but they don't really categorise these conjunctions as outright conjuncts.

The reason for this is clear. Grammar is just a game that grammarians play. Grammarians are umpires who stand by and watch the players carefully and these players make up their own rules as they progress in the game and the grammarians go out of their way to justify the new rules concocted by the players. Goal posts are moved and boundaries are re-drawn.

Let me go back to my earlier example of conjunctions that are used as conjuncts. Gowers cites examples all the way back from the 10th century and he remarks that 'the Bible is full of them'. When grammarians talk about the Bible they are not being religious. They are referring to the King James Bible which is an extremely respectable text as far as the English language is concerned. So because people have been using a sentence construction for eleven centuries and authoritative texts such as the Bible have heaps of it, it must be right. What about the problem that these conjunctions don't share all the attributes of a regular conjunct? That's not a big deal because not all conjuncts share these attributes anyway. With language there are always exceptions and exceptions within exceptions.

The time will come when even the most illiterate utterance today will be considered good grammar because the corpus will show that it's been consistently used for centuries from as long ago as the early 21st century or whatever date its first use can be traced back to. And of course, as always, it first gained currency in the US.

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